Car Rental Tips From A Pro

Reader P. works for one of those big national car rental companies, on the customer service front lines. She has some insights for how to get on the good side of car rental employees, how to make sure the car you ordered ends up where you need it, and the potential hazards of online reservation systems.

1. If you make your reservation online, PLEASE GIVE A PHONE NUMBER AND/OR EMAIL ADDRESS!!! We would love to confirm your reservation with you, but we’re not mind readers. The reservation/rental system I am forced to use is DOS-based (oh! the shame!) and leaves a lot to be desired as far as being user-friendly.

2. If you make your reservation online, be proactive and call the station where you’ll be picking up your vehicle to verify that the reservation went through and that your desired car will be on the lot. Should you have to do this? No, you shouldn’t. But what’s the harm in giving a heads up so that potential difficulties can be headed off at the pass?

3. We don’t grow cars on our lot. Our cars are constantly moving to and from location depending on demand. “Specialty” vehicles ñ things like 15-passenger vans, minivans, or high-end cars like sports cars, Infinitis, Lincoln Navigators and Town Cars, etc. need at least one week lead time to ensure you can reserve one.

Additionally, just because the online system allows you to reserve a certain type of car, it does NOT mean we actually have that car at the station you want to use. Please ñ call us and confirm.

4. Regarding availability ñ right now, a lot of car rental places are very tight on inventory because of the credit crunch, the general state of auto manufacturers, etc., so finding that “perfect” rental car might be even more difficult.

During peak times ñ holiday weekends, vacation months, special event days ñ”specialty” vehicles like minivans, 15-passenger vans and high-end vehicles may be very scarce or even impossible to obtain.

5. Be a pal and let us know when you aren’t going to honor your reservation. This isn’t such a big deal on a one day rental, but if you have a reservation for a week or for a specialty vehicle, please do the Christ-like thing and call and release the vehicle so we can possibly rent to someone else.

6. Regarding minivans and 15-passenger vans ñ a lot of rental franchises require a minimum rental period ñ especially during the summer months when people are taking vacations. Do not take this out on your local station; they have rules they have to abide by and are not doing this just to ruin your day.

7. Regarding truck rentals ñ I’m sorry that you have to rent a big old truck to move that big old widget you got for free on Craigslist. Yes, I realize the truck rental is costing you more than the widget. Yes, I recognize the cruel irony of this, but life is like that sometimes.

8. Speaking for my station, you must be at least 21 to rent a car. Renters 25 and younger are subject to an additional $25 per day surcharge. Again ñ I’m not doing this to cramp your youthful style, dude ñ it’s a rule of my boss. This also means that no, you can’t rent that fancy car for your senior prom, but your mom can (you still can’t drive it, though ñ sorry)

9. Regarding coupons/discounts ñ you generally have to bring the specific coupon with you when you pick up your card. Saying “I work for AT&T” doesn’t cut it ñ sorry. If that were the case, ALL of my customers would work for AT&T. If you *do* work for a company that has a discount with a rental agency, it is best that you make your reservation through your company, not in person, if you want that discount. If you’re using a coupon, please read it carefully. Some require a minimum rental period. Others require a certain class of car. I can’t give you what your coupon doesn’t provide for.

10. Regarding insurance on rental vehicles. I am required to advise you that insurance is available (loss damage waiver, additional liability policy, etc.). You are NOT required to take the insurance. HOWEVER ñ you must be aware of what your credit card or personal auto insurance does or does not cover. I cannot tell you this ñ don’t say “I have Allstate ñ what do they cover?” I haven’t a clue ñ sorry. I can say that, generally speaking, your auto policy/credit card does NOT cover rental trucks, and in a lot of cases, this includes SUVs and minivans. It’s your responsibility to find out ñ not mine.

11. When you do make a reservation online, whatever rate you requested is the rate that my system processes. I do not choose the rate – you did when you asked for unlimited mileage or a car seat or a GPS or asked to take the insurances available on a rental. Sometimes I can amend these items, but it can possibly affect your rate for the negative.

12. At my station, if you want to rent a car for someone and you aren’t here in person, you will have to fax me front and back of your credit card, front and back of your driver’s license and a signed statement authorizing the use of your card for this rental. Additionally, the person for whom you’re renting will be considered a secondary driver and a $25/day fee will apply.

13. Regarding debit cards: when you rent, depending on the type/length of rental, our system is going to get anywhere from a $200 to a $400 authorization on your card. This means $200 – $400 is going to be *frozen* on your debit card until you return the vehicle and your transaction is closed out. At least 2 times a week, this conversation transpires:

Customer: Can I rent a car with a debit card?
Me: Sure. We’ll take a $200 – $400 authorization/freeze on the card.
Customer: Oh. I only have like $23.47 in that account.
Me: (head asplodes)

Translation: The customer wants me to let him drive off my lot in a $45,000 car with absolutely no guarantee or deposit on his part. And no, we don’t rent on a cash deposit or a check.

Any questions for P.? Leave them in comments and we’ll pass them along.

RELATED: Uhaul Dealer’s Tips For Happier Renting

(Photo: Osbournes Life)

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.